Marvel’s doing it. Warner Bros. is doing it. Fox is doing it. Sony tried to do it (and blew it, finally surrendering and begging Marvel for help). Now Universal hops on the “shared universe” bandwagon. Well, hops AGAIN would be more correct, as this newest iteration of The Mummy is the studio’s THIRD attempt at starting a film series focusing on their catalog of famous monsters, after neither 2010’s The Wolfman or 2014’s Dracula Untold made enough noise to warrant continuing along those lines. Universal calls it the “Dark Universe,” and it sorta gets me thinking - I’ll bet the filmmakers behind the 1930s’ Frankenstein and Dracula movies weren’t thinking ahead to House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula when they created those classics, but that’s the reality of big-ticket genre filmmaking today.
Instead, eighty years after those masterpieces of pulp, we get CGI ghoulies roaming through a barely-there plot “driven” by a paper-thin protagonist and repeatedly undercut by smart-ass attempts at humor. At least, like many another underachieving megapicture, The Mummy gives good prologue, setting up its ancient Egyptian villainess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) as a woman scorned who hath plenty of hellish fury. Unfortunately, after her impressive introduction, we jump ahead to present-day Iraq, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a U.S. soldier who’s really a soldier of fortune, leads his buddy Lt. Vail (Jake Johnson) into a village occupied by local insurgents that Nick also believes holds a great archaeological treasure he can sell to the highest bidder.
Nick doesn’t take much seriously, but he’s not so much roguish as a one-dimensional wiseguy, always ready with a quip to undermine any dramatic or horrific moment, and there’s not much else to him. Another character describes him, quite correctly, as “utterly without a soul.” Thus, there’s no solid center to the action that ensues when Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is unearthed and winds up in England after the plane transporting it crashes (in the most effective action scene). Ahmanet resurrects looking much the worse for wear and goes about sucking the life energy out of assorted hapless victims while pursuing Nick, whom she has targeted as the host of the Egyptian chaos god Set. Poor beleaguered Nick is also occasionally visited by the jokey spectre of the now-deceased Lt. Vail, and eventually captured by the militaristic followers of one Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).
Perhaps Nick is so underdeveloped because Dr. Jekyll is the true star of The Mummy, in terms of Dark Universe’s ongoing series development. He presides over Prodigium, a secret society devoted to the ferreting out of evil, and already has an expansive collection of trophies - vampire skulls, a Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon hand and what appears to be the book from the Stephen Sommers version of The Mummy. That film similarly buried any horrific potential under digital effects and slaphappiness, but the effect is especially disappointing here because this version of The Mummy keeps edging toward being scary and then retreating, as if fearful of challenging either the audience or the PG-13 rating. Even a scene that should have been a surefire chill-maker - mummy minions rising from underwater tombs - blunted. Director Alex Kurtzman keeps the film moving on a superficial level, but the action lacks variety and surprise.
That also goes, unfortunately, for the Mummy herself. In walking-withered form, we’ve seen her twitchy CG-type many times before, and though Boutella gives a fine performance of what she’s given to do - conveying a palpable sense of vengeful passion - when Ahmanet’s true face is restored, this Mummy lacks what gave the ’30s classics their true heft: a sense of sympathy for their monsters. Moreover, Dr. Jekyll’s backstory has been reconceived in a manner that robs the character of his tragic dimensions. It all leads to a climax that attempts to pay off emotional connections that just aren’t there (Jenny Halsey, a rival treasure hunter who becomes Nick’s romantic interest and is played by Annabelle Wallis, is as much a cipher as he is), and concludes with a final scene that has the feel of something tacked on as a result of negative test scores.
Yes, it’s evident Tom Cruise is giving one hundred percent of himself in his role, and I will give credit where it’s due by saying that he always does. His performance is probably the best thing about The Mummy. However, he’s not the monster, and in Monster Movies, the monster had better be the star of the show, and this one ain’t… and that’s the overall problem with The Mummy - its makers have surrendered any possibility of a distinctive product with its own personality or identity in pursuit of the almighty “four quadrants.” When Aesop wrote his fable of the miller, his son and their donkey, he knew that when you try to please everybody, you wind up pleasing nobody and can lose your ass in the process. Why don’t these studios, in trying so desperately to created “shared universe” film franchises, understand this?